Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”

 

We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Serena Williams, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and arguably the greatest living female athlete, was understandably exhausted after defeating her sister and best friend Venus Williams in the U.S. Open earlier this week. So she wasn’t having it when, during a post-match press conference on Tuesday, a reporter had the gall to ask why she wasn’t smiling.

Williams looked down and gave an exasperated sigh before shelling out the best response an athlete has given in an interview since football player Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” trademark phrase.

It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.

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Nervous laughter may have broken out in the crowd, but what Williams expressed wasn’t a joke. All women are expected to perform femininity at the cost of being their authentic selves in the public sphere. Williams had just experienced what was likely one of the most emotionally and physically draining matches in her career. Taking on your sister in a high-stakes game isn’t easy. She had told the Associated Press before her win:

She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know. It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.

It makes sense that she would not be smiling ear-to-ear during the media conference. But it turns out no matter how insanely accomplished or famous you become, you will still be subjected to the innocuous-sounding but ever-so-pernicious “why don’t you smile?” interjection from those who feel entitled to make demands of women. Williams’ retort was her attempt at dismantling that sense of entitlement. For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions.

And the problem exists not just in the image-heavy world of professional sports. On Wednesday, Apple did little to change the public’s perception of the tech industry as a sexist one. During a launch presentation in San Francisco, the first woman to be seen on stage at the male-dominated event wasn’t a keynote speaker or even a presenter, but a model in a magazine photo. Adobe’s director of design used her image to show off the Photoshopping capabilities of the new iPad Pro.

What did he decide to Photoshop one might ask? A smile onto her face. He could have altered literally any aspect of any image he wanted but decided instead to force a woman’s visage into a grin.

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What happened at the tennis conference and the tech launch are symptoms of the same problem. Women, whether athletes or models, are often seen as products. They’re meant to be consumed and enjoyed, and expressions of personality — like not constantly grinning — distract from their role as ornaments.

It’s the reason projects like Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh have cropped up to address the microaggressions women face on a daily basis. Women don’t exist to smile for men and aren’t obligated to present a cheerful disposition to the world. To expect that denies us our humanity and only reinforces male privilege.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms., where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

I am so grateful to reader Emma Farais for recommending that I look into the history of the leotard. It was invented by — well, who else — Jules Léotard.

Born in 1842, Jules grew up to be an acrobat. He is credited with inventing trapeze and performed with French circuses. He invented and then began performing in leotards and he was a big hit. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum:

The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage.

He was a huge hit with the ladies. Alas, he died at age 28. Or 32, depending on the source.

But the leotard lived on. Leotards were adapted for women, but the form and function were similar. Think vintage muscle men and women.

Jules Léotard, circa 1850 (left); Circus Strong Man and Women, circa 1890 (right):4

Male dancers, athletes, and thespians wore leotards well into the ’70s. Eventually, though, disco happened. Disco fashion emphasized leotard fashion for women, as this roller disco shot from the Empire Rollerdome reveals:

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(Oh, to be a roller disco queen in ’70s Brooklyn. Sigh.)

Men eventually abandoned leotards as they became increasingly popular with women. We saw the same pattern, of course, with high heels and cheerleading: male flight from feminizing fashions and activities. The more women wore leotards, the less men wore them. Eventually, companies stopped making leotards for men altogether.

To the disappointment of all the (het) ladies, I’m sure.

Today, a Google Image search for leotard returns all ladies. Mostly girls, in fact. Not a guy in the bunch:

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I can only think of two arenas in which leotards for men still hold sway: wrestling and professional weight lifting. And, now I guess we know why.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium.

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet, and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.

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This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let’s not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns.

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Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)

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The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen.

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals. Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players – the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. That can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the  defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Ray Rice’s violent assault of Janay Palmer has placed a spotlight on the criminal records of professional football players more generally. It is tempting to presume that men who spend their lives perfecting the use of violence are more violent in their day-to-day lives, but we don’t have to speculate. We have some data.

USA Today maintains a database of charges, citations, and arrests of NFL players since 2000 (ones they found out about, in any case). According to their records, 2.53% of players are arrested in any given year. This is lower than the national average for men of the same age. And, despite the publicity, this year looks like it will be the least criminal on record.

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Domestic violence is the third most common charge or cite, following closely behind another violent crime, assault and battery. But by far the most common trouble NFL players face is being charged with a DUI.

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Interestingly, not all teams have similar rates of arrests, charges, or cites. These data below reflect 15 years of data, showing the wide disparity among teams. The number of run-ins with police tend to correlate well year-to-year, so this chart represents a stable trend.

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Neil Irwin, writing at the New York Times, says that varying levels of criminal activity may be related to club culture (that is, some franchise’s may be better at suppressing or inciting criminal activity than others) or it may be influenced by the cities they play for (e.g., there won’t be as many DUIs in cities like New York City where there’s substantially less driving). Both are great sociological explanations for the variation between teams and consistency across seasons.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Every spring, my daughter receives an invitation to participate in a local Girls on the Run (GOTR) program. Every spring, I hesitate saying, “yes.”

Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a non-profit organization with about 200 councils across the U.S. and Canada. Over 10 to 12 weeks, councils help organize teams of girls in 3rd through 8th grades to train for and complete a 5K run.

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Volunteer coaches lead their team through the program’s pre-packaged curriculum, consisting of lessons that “encourage positive emotional, social, mental and physical development.” Among other things they discuss self-esteem, confidence, team work, healthy relationships, and “challenges girls face.” Boys are not allowed to participate in the program. The 5K is described by GOTR as the ending “moment in time that beautifully reflects the very essence of the program goals.”

The starting line has the atmosphere of a party. Music is played over loud speakers, pumping teen pop (with lyrics laden with sexual innuendo and “crushes” on boys) and oldies that carry an affirmative “you can do it” message like Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive.”

Vendors (local businesses and organizations) bring tables to engage the girls and their parents in products/services they have available. This is not the only form of capitalistic opportunism affiliated with GOTR. The international organization’s official sponsors include Lego Friends – a line of Legos that emphasize single-sexed socialization (not building!) and Secret’s campaign “Mean Stinks” (featuring another pop glam star, Demi Lovato) that emphasizes painting fingernails blue, among other frivolous things, to address girl-on-girl bullying.

The run is an odd scene. Though boys have been banned from participation, older male relatives, friends, and teachers are encouraged to run with girls as their sponsors. It has become a unique trademark of GOTR that these men, and many of the women and girls, dress “hyper-feminine” (e.g., in skirts, tutus, big bows, bold patterned knee-high socks, tiaras, etc.), apply make-up or face paint, and spray color their hair. The idea is to “girl it up.”

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this event for a couple of reasons.

First, encouraging girls to “girl it up”—or I prefer, “glam it up,” so that we don’t appropriate these behaviors just for girls—can be fun, an opportunity to step out and beyond what is practiced in everyday life. But there’s no corresponding encouragement to “butch it up” if they desire, or do some combination of both.  In the end, then, this simply serves to reproduce gender stereotypes and the old-fashioned and false notion that gender is binary.

Second, by bombarding girls with “positive” messages about themselves meant to counteract negative ones, the program implicitly gives credence to the idea that girls aren’t considered equal to boys. What messages are girls really getting when special programs are aimed at trying to make them feel good about themselves as girls?

Although I have always given in to my daughter’s requests, at some point I am going to say “no.” Instead of reinforcing the box she’s put into, and decorating it with a pretty bow, we’ll have to start unpacking mainstream girl culture together.

Scott Richardson is an assistant professor of educational foundations and affiliate of women’s studies at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter.

In a comprehensive analysis of young men’s and women’s aspirations to public office, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox discover that part of the reason we see so few female politicians is because women just aren’t interested in running.  There are lots of reasons for this.  A absence of role models, a lack of encouragement from their parents, and the intimidating role that sexist attacks play in media coverage of campaigns.

But Lawless and Fox discovered another interesting correlation, one between political aspiration and sports.  More men than women — 74% compared to 41% — played on a college or intramural team and, for both, playing sports was correlated with political aspirations.  The figure shows that running for office had “crossed the minds: of 44% of women who played sports and 35% who hadn’t.  The numbers for men were 63% and 55% respectively.

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The authors suggest that the mediating factor is “an opportunity to develop… a competitive spirit.”  Sports, they argue, may build or reinforce the tendency to find pleasure in competition, which may make politics more appealing.

While sports increased both men’s and women’s interest in politics, it had a greater effect for women, shrinking the gender gap in political ambition by half.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Gendered nonsense wasn’t on the Pew Research Center survey about what people don’t like about Christmas, but it’s in my top five!

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.